Béatrice Commengé ‘Alger, rue des bananiers

The word war had still not been pronounced. France hasn’t been at war for twelve years: that was the official story. A rebellion wasn’t a war. And the army come over from France to put down the rebellion wasn’t a war time army. The dead and the wounded in the cafés weren’t war victims . Everything was ok.***

Opening quote remind you of anything contemporary? Well so it should, if you don’t give it it’s name all is well, remember the Indian Mutiny? In this book, my fourth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, Béatrice Commengé, going through her father’s books, mostly about Algeria, decides to investigate her own family’s relationship with Algeria, she herself left one year before independence as a soon to be teenager. Commengé juxtaposes her happy childhood memories growing up in France’s Algerian colony, mostly unaware of the events taking place leading up to independence and her family over four generations. Could they possibly not know of the violence on which l’Algerie Française was built, that their land had been taken from someone else and that these people had fought for more than one hundred years for their land as in the following extract describing a village close to her great great grandmother Jeanne’s address in 1860:

The colony had already known catastrophes. On the right bank the village of Maison carrée, — a brand new name, like Fort-de-l’Eau, had developed. Even the soil was new, reclaimed from the marshes, and bit by bit planted with vineyards and orange groves. Good crops. Cleaned of any past lives. Even the name of the tribe who lived on these lands thirty years previously had been forgotten, the Ouffia, or Aouffia, the night of the 6th to 7th of April 1832 had been forgotten when the duke of Rovigo had assembled the two hundred and ninety five horses of his cavalry, backed up by two infantry squadrons with the orders to exterminate anyone resisting their attack, without discrimination of age or sex. How many were there of the El Ouffia to warrant such force? The disagreement over the numbers still goes on today.***

No she concludes, Jeanne had not forgotten the Ouffia, she had no idea of their previous existence.

As the violence closes in on Algers, her child’s knowledge of events comes to the fore when De Gaulle tells the people of Algers (for people read Europeans) that he has understood them, “Je vous ai compris”, à somewhat famous quote here in France:

Three days after Father’s Day, the 18th of June , the head of the école Dujonchay gathered all of the pupils in the yard. She explained to us that we were celebrating an anniversary, that of “l’appel du général de Gaulle, the 18th of June 1940”. The very same de Gaulle. She reminded us that he had saved France in creating the Resistance and that now he was going to save French Algeria.***

A necessary book told from an unusual angle, but full of names and dates, not making it a favourite of mine for the prix du “Roman”.

First Published in french as “Algers, rue des bananiers” in 2020, by Editions Verdier.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le mot guerre n’était toujours pas prononcé. La France n’était pas en guerre depuis douze ans: c’était là l’histoire officielle. Une rébellion n’était pas une guerre. Et l’armée venue de France pour combattre la rébellion n’était pas une armée de guerre. Les morts et les blessés des cafés n’était pas des victimes de guerre. Tout allait bien.

Trois jours après la fête des Pères, le 18 juin, la directrice de l’école Dujonchay a rassemblé tous les élèves dans la cour. Elle nous a expliqué qu’on fêtait un anniversaire, celui de “l’appel du général de Gaulle, le 18 juin 1940”. Le même de Gaulle. Elle nous a rappelé qu’ils sauvé la France en créant la Résistance et qu’il allait maintenant sauver l’Algérie française.

La colonie a déjà connu ses catastrophes. Sur la rive droite s’est développé le village de Maison-Carrée — un nom tout neuf, comme Fort-de-l’Eau. Même la terre est neuve á Maison-Carrée, conquise sur les marécages, et peu à peu plantée de vignes et d’orangers. De belles cultures. Nettoyée de toutes vies passées. On a oublié jusqu’au nom de tribu qui vivait là trente ans plus tôt, les Ouffia, ou Aouffia, on a oublié la nuit du 6 et 7 avril 1832 où le duc de Rovigo a réuni les deux cent quatre-vingt-cinq chevaux de sa cavalerie, épaulés par deux compagnies d’infanterie avec ordre d’exterminer tous ceux que résisteraient à l’attaque, sans distinction d’âge ou de sexe. Combien y avait-il d’El Ouffia pour nécessiter tant de bras armés? La dispute sur les chiffres dure encore.


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